Personal Questions for Teachers to Answer Before Making the Big Switch to School Administration
Before you start looking into how to become a principal, I hope you’ll spend a few minutes with me. You see, I have the privilege of serving beside extremely gifted teachers. They are talented educators, and many have heard the calling, “You should think about becoming a principal.” Only they know if the switch from teacher leadership to building leadership is right for them.
As a teacher-turned administrator, here are some questions and insights for those who wonder if they’re ready for the work of being a principal. I hope you’ll think about them, write about them, and talk about them with your mentors!
Why do you want to be an administrator?
You’ve heard it before! “Start with why.” (most familiarly from Simon Sinek) There are a myriad of answers people give to this question, “Why do you want to be a principal?” In my experience, there is no single right answer to this one. It’s not one’s specific reply that matters most, but the motive behind the move.
Answers that give me hope for my colleague: “I want to help more kids, especially those who struggle; Systems work seems really important and fascinating; “the big picture” is getting really clear to me; I am starting to think about my principal’s work and notice what they really do; the work seems interesting to me; I want to help more families.” Answers like these have been the driver for some of the most successful teachers whom I’ve seen make the switch.
Answers that give me pause include: “I had a terrible principal and I am going after their job; I’m doing it for the money; it’s what I’m supposed to do–move up the ladder.” Truly understanding one’s motive for the move is important. That’s because the work is extremely difficult, emotional, and complex. Having a solid foundation in a deep-seated, altruistic “north star” will provide an anchor when times get rough (which they certainly do!).
How much time do you have in your personal life?
Sure, school administrators have a higher salary. But hour-for-hour, there’s a reason why! Many school administrators and principals work year-round, and in making the switch they give up their famous “summers off.” Are you a parent of kids who have summers off? Where will they go while you continue your work in the summer? Do you thrive because of those recharging 2 1/2 months off? Or could you live without them? Are you interested in planning for next school year, in the middle of this school year?
Then there’s nights and weekends–LOTS of them. School administrators are the face of the school, and their presence communicates to students and parents where the school’s values lie. Take a look at the school’s calendar: Band concerts, choir concerts, athletic awards banquets, Parent/Information Nights, Open Houses, tours after school, meetings, sports competitions (think 3-4 sports per season!). The list is very long. Depending on where you are hired, you may be able to split some of these duties with VPs or others, but keep in mind: people watch where the principal’s feet go…don’t go.
Ask yourself: Can my personal life and family life handle the time requirements of the role of being principal? What needs to be sacrificed, and is that doable right now? Do the benefits outweigh the costs for my family? How might this be difficult for us?
What is your tolerance for conflict?
One of the main reasons why school administration is so difficult is that the simpler issues are often solved in the day-to-day operations by great teammates: secretaries answer countless calls and questions from parents; teachers calm the concerns of nervous parents; counselors support kids in crisis; multi-tiered systems of support function well, providing interventions to struggling learners.
By the time something reaches my desk, it’s often a pretty big deal: frustrated school neighbors, Child Welfare workers, investigators, disgruntled employees, low-performing teammates. Sure, principals have their share of less-complex tasks, but often they deal with the larger scale issues. Personnel matters, scheduling, employee discipline, frustrated (or irate) parents, students who’ve gotten in trouble, cheating incidents, school culture issues–all in the day’s work.
School administrators deal with conflict daily. Principal, vice principal, dean of students – they are “the manager” to whom people wish to speak when they have a concern.
Take a moment and reflect on the following: What is your tolerance for courageous conversations? How does it feel to coach a teacher whom you respect but who needs to improve their student engagement? What is your response when being yelled at on the phone? Being shouted at in person? Having your character questioned? How does it feel to have a student roll their eyes at you and walk away? What is your internal and external response?
These are simple examples, sure. But administrators deal with these situations daily. Is yours a personality that can get embattled with others? Do you people-please to avoid conflict at all costs? Or are you solution-finder who is open to differing opinions?
Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of joy, beauty, and levity in the work. But if anyone in the school is dealing with one of these situations, it’s the Person In Charge–and that’s you, Principal! So imagine yourself in these tense situations, and think of how you’ll manage your emotions as well as the situation.
How do you make decisions?
My fellow administrators and I joke that our work is “black and white and gray all over.” There is no manual for the best course of action in all situations. Sure, you can rely on Board Policy, handbooks, and other guiding documents. But every day, I make several judgement calls that impact students, a family or colleagues. Every day, and several times per day. It’s important to recognize how you make decisions. This will help you understand what kind of leader you might be, where you may need coaching, when to seek guidance from a mentor, and ultimately in what setting you’ll find the most success.
Do you require consensus before you take action?
Would you rather seek input from others before making decisions?
Perhaps you prefer a top-down style, making decisions and putting them into action?
Do you struggle to make decisions, and if so, what helps you eventually make them?
Input from others? Time? Prayer? Knowing all the options?
I was most surprised during my first week of administration that people were coming to me for the answers to really big questions. Judgement calls from Day 1! That has never stopped. Knowing my decision-making process helped me land in the right roles, with the right mentors, and ultimately in organizations that fit my decision-making style.
How will you stay fulfilled?
Leaving the classroom was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. My students recharged my soul every day. Our inside jokes, watching them grow (as people and as learners)–even on the hardest day, I could look back and identify how I made a difference for at least one student. I loved the challenge of another school year; another cohort of amazing students. How would I improve my practice over last year?
Leaving the classroom, I had to wonder: “How will I stay fulfilled?” The great news is that I still connect with students but it’s definitely different now. I may never be chosen as “staff member of the year” by students. It’s true that I’m often the policy enforcer; the disciplinarian. What’s a Dean of Students, Vice Principal or Principal, if not the “bad guy” in some students’ minds?
Today I understand that I traded in those opportunities for something much greater: School leaders influence systems changes that make larger impacts than people may ever know. My work affects peoples’ working conditions, students’ intelligence and character, and the health of my community as a whole.
Even though I don’t have a huge following of students who profess their adoration for me (like a classroom teacher), I know my work truly matters. And that keeps my cup full. Instead of baked goods at the holidays, now students give me something even greater – a chance to support them in (sometimes) their most vulnerable moments. Caught breaking a rule. Being disrespectful to an adult. Skipping. Questioning their own values. I get to partner and mentor students like never before.
Though I interact with all students, my closest relationships are with those who need me most: students who are scared, under-supported, or in situations that are above their ability to solve on their own. I LOVE this part of the work. That’s another question to ponder: What is your tolerance for students who are further from the opportunity? It’s an important question to ask one’s self because they are who I interact with most frequently.
Are there other ways to lead instead of becoming a principal?
Is it time to start a Teaching Blog or Website where you share your expertise, resources and passion with others?
Is there a policy or practice in your school that needs to be changed? (Read how this school’s Teacher-led Cell Phone Policy changed teaching and learning for the whole school)
Do you want to help take on the vaping epidemic that is sweeping the nation? (Read this open letter from an administrator to parents about Vaping at School)
Consider creating resources for other teachers (like this FREE Parent Phone Call Template) and sharing it with the world!
What will you choose?
I hope my reflections have given you questions to consider. If you’re still reading, there’s no question that you’re an awesome educator who thinks deeply about their place in this work. That gives me hope for you and your community!
You’ll notice there’s no quiz for you to take: “If you score 10 or above, you’re ready for school administration!” That’s because there is no easy answer to who should be an administrator. However, after years as both a classroom teacher and a school leader, these are a few questions that have made evident who loves and thrives in school administration, and who doesn’t.
Regardless of what you decide, I hope you’ll continue to love and support students in your community. “Lift where you stand,” as we say. Every role in our school system is vital, and each of us has the ability to positively impact a student’s life today. What a gift we have! Best of luck in your journey! Take care of yourself, all year long (read my FREE 12-month guide to Teacher Survival Tools).
Follow that calling to where it may lead!